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Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: a Guide

by Harold Underdown

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Introduction: What do you want to know about agents?

Many authors and illustrators for children want to know about agents. This should answer the most frequently asked questions.

Do I need to have an agent?

In my experience, writers for children face a different situation than writers for adults. Agents are not always needed to gain access. There are houses that say they will only consider manuscripts from published authors or agents, notably the imprints belonging to the "big six" New York publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Putnam, and Disney/Hyperion). But these houses are difficult to break into even with an agent, because almost all of their books are by people already in their catalog, or published elsewhere. Beginning writers can and do get access to publishers without an agent, if they look at other publishers, cultivate personal contacts, or follow other indirect strategies. Picture book or nonfiction writers in particular may have to use these approaches, as agents more often work with the authors of novels.

Agents themselves have told me that first-time authors can often use their time more wisely in contacting publishers, not agents. There are ways to do this, even with the "big six"; they may look at queries, for example, even if they don't let you submit manuscripts directly. Many agents are actually less likely to take on an unpublished author as a client than a publisher is to sign up that author's manuscript--partly because they are as flooded with slush as publishers are, partly because they take on fewer clients than a publisher takes on manuscripts. This is certainly true of established, reputable agents. People who have only just hung up their shingle may take on more beginners, but since they are beginners themselves they may not be much help in getting access. Many authors therefore still get started by being pulled from the slush pile, and some never work with an agent.

For more on this: Five Reasons Why You Don't Need an Agent

For children's book illustrators the situation is definitely a little different. Though like authors many represent themselves, more work with agents (known in this case as artist's representatives), and unpublished illustrators do seem to be able to become clients for agents--though sometimes not without many mailings, portfolio drop-offs, and schmoozings at conferences. Having a rep, artists tell me, helps them get work that they would not get themselves--work from educational publishers, for example, which can definitely help in paying the bills.

What does an agent do, then?

An agent can do quite a lot for you. To quote Jennie Dunham, an agent who graciously commented on this (speaking mostly of literary agents, though much of this applies to artist's reps as well):

The three primary things that agents do are:

1) submit material to publishers (the advantages here are that agents can submit to all publishers without worrying about which ones don't accept unsolicited material, and also that agents know the business and have dealt with the editors before, so we don't have to research to whom we should submit a piece)
2) negotiate contracts (ok, what unagented author or illustrator likes to do this? Most agents have boilerplate contracts that are better than what unagented people receive from the publisher, and that's where we start negotiating - also, we can say "we haven't done this for anyone else ever" and there is a powerhouse behind that statement which there isn't for a single author or illustrator)
3) collect monies and distribute them (we review the royalty statements, which these days are intensely complicated, we point out any mistakes and get the publisher to pay up, which is much harder for an individual to do than an agent with a whole stable of clients).

This information just lists the basics. An agent will help with any problem that arises, can give good advice ("consider what your editor is saying, this is standard" or "No, you shouldn't have to do that, I'll give your editor a call"), and will manage a career. It's nice for an author or illustrator who deals with more than one publisher to get one 1099 at the end of the year from us stating all earnings, commissions, expenses, etc.

What does an agent get in return?

Most literary agents receive a 15% commission on your actual earnings--advances, royalties, permission fees, etc. Rates also may be higher for certain kinds of deals (such as movie or foreign rights, where the agent must share with a co-agent), and artist's reps consistently charge more, from 20% to as high as 35%. Agents usually take their commission out of the payments they receive from publishers, and pass the rest on you. The agent earns his or her 15% for the life of the book. An agent's commission is earned for the life of a book (there are some agent's contracts that specify the copyright period of the book, but this approach is not standard); if you leave an agent, they will continue to receive royalty payments on your behalf for the books they handled, and to pass through your earnings after deducting their commission.

Legitimate agents do not charge "reading fees" or make referrals to manuscript doctors associated with the agency. Many established agents do charge certain expenses back to their clients, but the amount of money involved will be modest, and you may only be asked to pay when the agent makes a sale. Be sure you know up front what expenses will be passed through to you. Legitimate agents will spell everything out in your contract with them.

What does an agent not do?

Do not expect too much of an agent. An agent will not solve all of the problems you face as an author. As one well-known author said in a message to me, "they're not managers, they're not publicists, they're not editors, they're not industry crystal balls who can tell you what to write and sell next.." There is one exception: "editorial agents," who may be former editors, do work with their clients to get manuscripts into better shape for submission. However, there are limits to the amount of time they can put into any given manuscript, and no agent can be expected to sell everything you produce, unless of course your output is extremely limited.

There are other limits. Agents may have a limited amount of time to talk with you--you may hear from them only intermittently, primarily when a publisher has made an offer. Understand too that an agent does not work only for you. They represent you, but you are not the only person they represent. They gain access to editors you might not be able to gain access to yourself, but that means that they usually have some investment in maintaining a good relationship with that editor. This means that you must still stay involved in the process: let them know if there is an editor who you do not want them to submit to, or if there are issues that you will not budge on in a contract, for example. However, if with even modest expectations, you are constantly disappointed, then remember that ending your relationship is an option.

More Resources About Agents and Artist's Reps

Researching and Choosing an Agent
Three case studies: Adams Literary; Writers House; A Shady Agency
Book and Online Resources for Finding Agents
An Interview with Agent Andrea Brown
An Interview with Agent Ann Tobias
The Artist/Agent Team by artist rep Chris Tugeau
Two Tricky Situations with Agents (from my blog)

With many thanks to Jennie Dunham. Please do not send me emails with questions about her or submissions for her. She may be contacted via her agency, Dunham Literary.

Copyright © 1996-2014 by Harold Underdown ( Google + Profile ). If you wish to reproduce this, please see the Terms of use. Last modified 12/20/2014.

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